The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Toepfl: Managing Public Outrage: Power, Scandal, and New Media in Contemporary Russia

Paper presenter: 
Toepfl, F., Harriman Institute, Columbia University

Over the past three decades, scholars studying the phenomenon of political scandal have mostly based their works on the premise that scandals can only occur in liberal democracies. However, contradictory to this assumption, some of the most momentous and heavily discussed phenomena in the contemporary Russian, semi-authoritarian environment are scandals arising from a vibrant sphere of social media on a largely unfiltered Internet. What specific patterns of scandal communication can be observed in the contemporary, semi-authoritarian Russian environment? How are the ruling elites dealing with these spontaneous outbursts of public outrage?

To address these and related questions, the article juxtaposes two carefully selected case studies of police corruption scandals that erupted in the sphere of Russian social media in late 2009 and early 2010. Drawing on implications from these case studies, it is argued that Russian political elites are presently very much capable of managing public outrage that flares up in the sphere of social media according to their political aims. The findings of the case studies illustrate how scandals are currently selectively reported and carefully reframed by state-controlled television, and how public anger is thus very swiftly directed towards lower-level authorities and foreign, supposedly hostile powers. However, as will also be exposed, the success of these strategies depends largely on the willingness of the whistle-blowers to co-operate.

Florian Toepfl